Johnson hatches plot to knock out Gove
Tory frontrunner’s supporters could vote tactically as they hope for Hunt in final two
SUPPORTERS of Boris Johnson will mount an operation today to derail Michael Gove’s leadership campaign, as Conservative MPS decide the final two candidates to be prime minister.
Mr Gove has never been forgiven for betraying Mr Johnson during the 2016 leadership contest and revenge was in the air last night as MPS began plotting against him.
One supporter of Mr Johnson said they did not want Mr Gove just to be beaten, but to be “humiliated”.
Mr Johnson, who celebrated his 55th birthday yesterday, won the backing of 143 Tory MPS in the third party ballot last night – as many as the remaining three candidates combined.
Rory Stewart is out of the race after managing just 27 votes, 10 fewer than he polled in the previous round, while Jeremy Hunt came second with 54 votes, Mr Gove was third with 51 and Sajid Javid was fourth with 38.
Mr Gove picked up 10 extra votes to move within touching distance of Mr Hunt, and backers of Mr Johnson now want to use Mr Javid as a vehicle to knock Mr Gove out of the running in the next round this morning, by “lending” him votes to get him through to tonight’s final MPS’ ballot. Intense pressure was also being put on Mr Stewart’s former supporters last night to back Mr Javid or Mr Hunt in order to leave Mr Gove isolated.
Mr Johnson’s supporters believe Mr Hunt would be the easiest candidate for him to beat in a head-to-head contest, and want to avoid the “psychodrama” of Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, the two leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, tearing at each other’s throats during weeks of regional hustings.
It was reported last night that Amber Rudd, a key supporter of Mr Hunt, was hosting a dinner for MPS who had backed Mr Stewart, in the hope of adding them to Mr Hunt’s team.
Mr Johnson is now 1-10 odds-on favourite to be the next prime minister, with Mr Hunt second favourite at 14-1, slightly ahead of Mr Gove at 16-1, and Mr Javid a rank outsider at 33-1, according to Coral bookmakers.
Many of Mr Johnson’s supporters have a “visceral hatred” of the Environment Secretary, one source said, after he reneged on a promise to be Mr Johnson’s campaign manager in 2016 and instead stood against him, ending the former foreign secretary’s chances of beating Theresa May.
The Daily Telegraph understands that conversations have already taken place between Mr Javid’s team and Mr Johnson’s team about how the Home Secretary can be guaranteed a place in the final ballot of MPS.
Sources close to the Johnson campaign admitted yesterday that some of his backers had already voted tactically, but insisted it had not been sanctioned by Mr Johnson or his team. But
WHEN Rory Stewart unexpectedly started trending on Twitter last week, a Conservative colleague took the International Development Secretary aside to gently break the news to him that he was never going to be prime minister.
Citing Lord Heseltine as a respected elder statesman, the MP told the 46-year-old maverick politician: “I’m sorry Rory, you’re just going to have to settle for being remembered as the best prime minister we never had.”
Rewind to Tuesday night’s second ballot and things were looking extremely positive for the darkhorse candidate once dubbed “Florence of Belgravia” by those more sceptical of his talents than the 37 MPS who backed him as leader.
Having almost doubled his fan base from his 19 supporters in the first round, the momentum appeared to be firmly behind the old Etonian “anti establishment” figure who once tutored Princes William and Harry and counts the Prince of Wales as a personal friend.
An aggressive social media campaign, featuring hand-held videos of Mr Stewart meeting members of the public, combined with more media appearances than all his rivals combined, attracted heavyweight backers including David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, and David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, as the bookies began slashing the odds on Stewart making it into the final two. But a week is a long time in politics and, as the past 24 hours have proved, an MP’S descent from hero to zero can be brutal. As Mr Stewart’s acolytes dissected his sudden and somewhat unexpected demise last night, could tactical voting have brought down the man many accuse of spouting Liberal Democrat policies?
While his MP backers were yesterday desperately trying to spin that his tieless performance in Tuesday night’s chaotic leadership debate was superior to his rivals, by his own admission he found the format “frustrating” and “was not as rigorous as I might have been”. Having removed his neckwear due to the heat, he appeared fidgety on his stool and at times uncomfortable in front of the camera, leading critics to suggest that the nomadic Mr Stewart, who once hiked across Asia, had reached “peak Rory” … and careered off the edge.
As one uncharitable veteran Tory put it: “Rory completely bombed. He was absolutely awful. What we were left with after that debate was a bit of roadkill that was still twitching but in need of being put out of its misery.” Or as a Boris backer said: “What the debate showed was Rory’s limitations. It’s been a fun novelty act but I don’t think people in the party are seriously considering him as a prime minister.” Not least after the former Labour supporter declared: “We do not need more tax cuts”; anathema to the average Tory MP, let alone Tory voter. Then came suggestions of a pact with Michael Gove, which seemingly proved to be the final nail in the coffin of Mr Stewart’s prime ministerial ambitions. Telling the BBC’S Victoria Derbyshire programme that he had begun “talks” with the Environment Secretary, he spoke of “combining forces” in order to defeat Mr Johnson, adding: “We would find a common position [on Brexit] … we would have to agree to compromise.”
MPS were left scratching their heads as to how a staunch Remainer, who has consistently insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be renegotiated, could possibly form a coalition with a former Vote Leave frontman who has promised to do just that.
As comparisons were already being made with John Redwood’s misjudged decision to support Ken Clarke against William Hague in 1997, Mr Stewart’s team did its best to play down suggestions of a pact and was forced to deny rumours that the pair had held a secret meeting in Mr Gove’s office on Monday after they were photographed chatting animatedly together that afternoon.
One supporter told The Daily Telegraph yesterday lunchtime: “Michael’s people are pushing the pact idea because they’re getting a bit desperate.”
Pointing out that the rivals are in neighbouring offices, the MP insisted: “There have been lots of meetings – they meet all the time. This isn’t about stopping Boris, it’s about providing Tory members with a choice.”
But that’s clearly not how Mr Johnson’s campaign saw it, which brings us to the issue of tactical voting.
With catty comments already being made in the Commons tearoom that Mr Stewart had “started believing his own hype”, concern was growing at his increasingly desperate attempts to win more support, including texting former supporters of Dominic Raab until 3.15am yesterday.
Eyebrows had already been raised after he had tried to pick off MPS who had previously supported Sajid Javid.
He told them in a text after Tuesday’s second ballot, when the Home Secretary polled four fewer votes than Mr Stewart on 33: “I know that was not the result you might have been hoping for, and I understand you might want a bit of space to think, but you will be aware that the vote is tomorrow. So forgive unseemly haste.”
His message added: “I’d be proud to have you on my team, and I would love to chat any time that you’re free. Very best wishes, Rory.”
Bragging that he had picked up Leave supporters, including “some positive responses” from Mr Raab’s backers, he told BBC Radio 4 yesterday: “I am not playing numbers here but I had a couple this morning. The reason for that is like me they feel … we have to get this done.” His team was also briefing journalists that he had been winning support from “the most surprising of quarters”.
Yet yesterday afternoon, Mr Stewart had taken a different tack by accusing Gavin Williamson, Mr Johnson’s “chief whip”, of “lending” votes to Mr Javid to push him out of the final four – a claim vehemently denied by Boris backers. “It’s not true,” said a supporter of Mr Johnson. “Some MPS may have lent friends’ votes for strategic purposes but the Boris campaign wants him to have the biggest mandate possible.” Last night’s arithmetic does appear to support Mr Stewart’s theory, with Mr Javid gaining five, while he lost 10.
But there have also been suggestions that Leavers may have only switched to Mr Stewart in the second round in a bid to force Mr Raab – Mr Johnson’s main Brexiteer rival – out of the race.
Whatever the truth, Mr Stewart claims the campaign has “given me a new faith in politics and a belief in our country,” adding: “I didn’t get enough MPS to believe today, but they will.”
He may have been reduced to an “also ran” but the man famed for his love of walking does not appear to have given up his dream of one day marching on Downing Street.
‘Rory bombed. He was awful. What we were left with after that debate was a bit of roadkill that was still twitching but in need of being put it out of its misery’
Rory Stewart, right, has accused backers of Boris Johnson, left, of engaging in tactical voting to push him out of the Tory leadership contest, claims that supporters of the former foreign secretary have vehemently denied. Below, Michael Gove was said to have shown interest in a Stewart pact